I anticipate this post will get a fair amount of attention, so a little background first.
Jonathan Sessions is a friend of mine who owns a local tech firm (Tech 2). He’s a young, intelligent person, who has a very focused and particular vision of how Columbia Public Schools should adapt for the future. I have donated both time and money to his campaign and encourage you to vote for him in the Columbia city elections April 6th.
Jon was recently interviewed by the Columbia Tribune regarding his thoughts on school lunch. Here is the relevant excerpt:
Tribune: Do you feel a responsibility as a school board member to ensure school lunches include more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and fewer high-fat, high-sodium and sugary foods?
Jon Sessions: It is clear to me that CPS Nutritional Services has made a priority of, and is already delivering, school lunches with whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Fullum recognizes the correlation between healthy eating habits and fighting diseases like heart disease and diabetes. Nutritional Services is working with vendors to provide food and educational opportunities from local food producers and farmers to reduce the impact CPS has on the environment and to educate students about where their food comes from. I believe these food and educational opportunities will help students creating healthy eating habits. The board needs to support Fullum and her team’s plans to continue to provide nutritious meals for our students.
This seems reasonable, does it not? Treat school nutrition as a learning opportunity; buy high-quality local foods when we can afford it; weigh the environmental impacts of different food options; support and incentivize healthy eating. These are all ideas that I strongly believe are important after years of research and advocacy on the subject and I commend Jon for having an intelligent perspective on the subject.
But there are people who disagree with me (and Jon). One of them is Show-Me Institute blogger Sarah Brodsky, who has this to say about Jon’s comment:
The assertion that local food is superior for environmental reasons comes up often in local food debates. To understand why districts should not conflate local food with environmentally friendly food, I recommend reading Caitlin Hartsell’s excellent post about why growing food closer to consumers is not always better.
In addition to in his claim that local food is better for the environment, the candidate says that purchasing food locally will teach students where their food comes from. I don’t know how he expects the food to do that. From the students’ point of view, food from Missouri looks the same as food from Illinois or food from Indiana. Of course, teachers could point out to students where the food originated from, and they could conduct lessons on where the food was cultivated and harvested — but they could do that just as well if the food came from a different state. In fact, if the place where cafeteria food is grown is to become a subject of study, it might be better to buy food from a distance. That way, students can learn about a place with which they wouldn’t otherwise become familiar, instead of focusing their local area, which they already know something about from experience.
Here, first off, is my response to Caitlin Hartsell’s post. It contains a great defense of local food; I point out that what school lunch advocates want is a shift from over-processed, nutritionally deficient foods to fresh produce and nutritionally ‘whole’ foods that are more likely to be available from local farmers and producers than anywhere else. The underlying message is that we shouldn’t be skimping on food for our most valuable assets: our children.
The second argument I’ll make is directed at Brodsky’s second paragraph, where she mocks Jon by saying “I don’t know how he expects the food to do that (teach).” Well, Ms. Brodsky, I don’t think either Jon or I literally claim that the food itself can teach…typically teaching is a task performed by human beings, not inanimate objects. More generally, Brodsky unfairly discounts the educational value of a curriculum that draws on local history and commerce to ground the abstraction of subjects like nutrition and well-being in the general (and local) context of farms, factories, and business relationships. Buying local food for school lunches is a smart way to take advantage of locally available resources to provide contextual education in everything from mathematics to history to biology. It is also critically important to provide education about health and nutrition because healthy, well-adjusted adults are part of the reason why we have schools in the first place.
Finally, I’ll note that I am really disappointed that the Show-Me Institue continues to subsidize scholarship of such poor quality. It is apparent to me that Sarah Brodsky does not do basic research on important topics before she posts atrociously reasoned and ignorant advocacy on subjects like Parents as Teachers or school lunches. It is also apparent to anyone who reads her work that Brodksy routinely misreads and misinterprets the work of honest advocates for her own use. Nor is Brodsky responsive to criticism; I’ve published several thousand words worth of work on this subject alone and have yet to receive a fair, intelligent response.
Addendum: Here might be my most important post on school lunches; it is a rough survey of the literature. Included is this must-read paper from Emily Ozer on school gardens and nutrition and education from Health Education and Behavior in 2006.